Camp Sea Haven, Plum Island MAHistory

The Knobbs

(Above: 1995 Google Earth satellite image of the polio camp at the former Knobbs Beach Life -Saving Station)

No one knows how a sandy cove on the west side of Plum Island about two miles from its southern tip got its name, but 19th Century photographs show a couple of tall dunes which have long since vanished. The Knobbs is the only beach in an otherwise continuous stretch of salt marsh, and provided a landing for sportsmen hunting the abundant shore birds of Plum Island Sound before it became the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

Directly opposite the Knobbs on the Atlantic side of Plum Island was the Knobbs Beach Life -Saving Station, built in 1890. Captain Frank Stevens was given command, and during his 33-year career participated in the rescue of crews from over a hundred wrecked or stranded vessels. On May 4, 1893, the schooner “Brave” from Deer Isle was driven on the shore near Knobbs Beach and the Captain and three men were drowned.

Located in the Ipswich part of Plum Island, the lighthouse was so isolated that the crew had to store enough food to get them through several weeks in the winter. Bar Island Head was the south end of the beach patrol, and a crew member from the Knobbs station would walk north to a half-way point to meet a crew member from the identical life-saving station located at the northern tip of the island. The Knobbs station operated until the end of World War II.

The Knobbs Life-Saving station on Plum Island, later the site of Camp Sea Haven. Photo by George Dexter, c 1900.

Camp Sea Haven

In 1947, Daniel R. Harrington Sr., a polio survivor, founded a camp on Plum Island for polio victims on the location of the former Knobbs Coast Guard station. His family operated the camp for more than two decades as a public service, and after polio was eradicated in the ’50s and ’60s, they began accepting children with other disabilities. From 1972 – 1988 the facility was operated by the Cerebral Palsy Foundation. The property was bought by the Parker River Refuge, and the buildings were removed.

sea-haven-polio-1947

Today the site of the life-saving station and polio camp can be reached by a trail that starts at parking lot 5 on the Refuge Road that leads to Sandy Point State Reservation. The nearby Pines Trail entrance road was originally constructed to provide access to the camps at the beach on the Plum Island Sound side.

Sources and further reading:

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3 replies »

  1. I caught polio in October, 1955. I Had Bulba (sp?) polio which was one of the worst stages, my diaphragm was paralyzed, and I was literally within minutes of going into an iron lung when my diaphragm began working again. I attended Camp Sea Haven, where I learned to swim, with my sister who also had polio, from 1956 to 1964. My sister continued as a counselor and senior counselor for a few more years. I went to Boston Children’s Hospital for therapy until 1964. All that not withstanding, I served in the U.S. Marine Corps (regular and reserve) from 1969 to 1981 in Aviation and Infantry.

    When our son was born in 1991, and we brought him in for his first polio immunization, I insisted on the Salk Vaccine for the first immunization. When the Dr. asked why, I relied that I had paralytic polio, and that four out of a million who receive the Sabin vaccine develop paralytic polio since it’s a weakened live strain, and I didn’t want him to have even that low a risk. He agreed, and some years after that, due to the U.S. and AMA losing a 1977 Kansas law suit, they changed their recommendations to require the Salk vaccine instead of the Sabin for the first immunization.

    My only concern now (at 70-years old) is post-Polio syndrome since my diaphragm was paralyzed and seemed to recover.

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  2. Gordon, that is a very interesting piece about that beautiful part of Plum Island and the great pics of bygone Camp Sea Island. Those were scary years in the mid 50s when polio was spreading. We were so relieved when the vaccine finally became available after years of research. I was in high school and I recall all of us getting the shot in school.

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